12 - Other Names by Which Boogie Woogie is Known

by John Tennison — History of Boogie Woogie

The developments in Boogie Woogie that occurred in Chicago in the 1920s, and at various places in the 1930s, resulted in a prototypical recordings or yardsticks by which other latter music can be compared to assess its “Boogie-Woogie-ness.”  Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson are exemplary Boogie Woogie exponents whose collection of recordings from the 1920s and 1930s provide a yardstick to which other music can be compared to asses its Boogie-Woogie-ness.  Although I prefer the term “Boogie Woogie,” to describe music that resembles the prototypical sound of Ammons, Lewis, and Johnson, below are other terms that are sometimes used to refer to what could usually be more precisely called Boogie Woogie:

Barrelhouse - refers to the locations where much of early Boogie Woogie evolved.  Literally speaking, “Barrelhouse” can refer to any music that was traditionally played in barrelhouses.  Consequently, not all “Barrelhouse” music was Boogie Woogie.  For example, some “Barrelhouse” music would have sounded more like Ragtime than Boogie Woogie.  However, in present-day usage, “Barrelhouse” is used more often to refer to styles that sound more like Boogie Woogie and less like Ragtime.  Sometimes the term “barrelhouse” is used to refer to music that is said to have proceeded but led to Boogie Woogie, yet, unless distinctions are made as to what musical elements distinguish this usage of “Barrelhouse” from Boogie Woogie, this is an ambiguous distinction.  Many times “barrelhouse” is used to describe Boogie Woogie when it is played with the least structure of all, in which the player has not idea of what he or she is going to play until after starting to play.  Such performances, as in the case of Alex Moore, are often accompanied by spontaneous commentary.

Boogie - Sometimes uses as a contraction or synonym of “Boogie Woogie.”  However, sometimes used to refer to guitar renditions of a Boogie Woogie walking bass or a Boogie Woogie pulse, especially as was developed in Rockabilly and “Hillbilly” derivatives of Boogie Woogie.

Blues Piano - can refer to the fact that some Boogie Woogies use a 12-bar or other common cyclical harmonic progression used in blues music.

Country Blues (Piano)—Sometimes used as a contrast to urban blues, such as those with the Harlem Stride oom-pah bass lines.

Honky Tonk - suggests a location and the sound of a train, as in “Honky Tonk Train”

Ragtime - can refer to the syncopation (i.e. the “ragged time”) used in Boogie Woogie and Ragtime.  Yet, Boogie Woogie usually does not have a oom-pah left hand as its predominant bass figure as Ragtime typically does.

Walking Bass - What Sammy Price said Boogie Woogie was called in Texas while, at the same time, being called “booga-rooga” by Blind Lemon Jefferson (This usage pre-dated the recording of “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie.”)  Walking basses tend to be heard melodically and thus contrapuntal to right-hand parts, but because of their width and close harmonies of their chords, stride basses (see below) tend not to be perceived as melodic, but rather as harmonic accompaniment to right-hand parts.

Stride - as opposed to “Walk,” refers to a relatively greater width between successive left hand notes and/or chords.  Put another way, “Walking” basses and “Stride” basses are on the same continuum, with “Striding” being at one end and “Walking” being at the other end.  Oom-pah strides are less common in Boogie Woogie, and more common in “Ragtime” and what is called “Stride Piano,” as developed Harlem and New York City.  In the movie, “Ray,“33 about the life of Ray Charles, the Ray Charles character indicates that he got his start playing “stride,” yet this is a factual error.  If the writers of this screenplay had stuck to the facts, they would have the Ray Charles Character say that he learned piano from a “Boogie Woogie” piano player, as the real-life Ray Charles indicated in his 1978 autobiography:  “Sometimes I’m asked about my biggest musical influence as a kid.  I always give one name:  Mr. Wylie Pitman.  I called him Mr. Pit.“56 and (page 8) “Mr. Pit could play some sure-enough boogie-woogie piano.“56 and (page 8)  “Oh, that piano!  It was an old, beat-up upright and the most wonderful contraption I had ever laid eyes on.  Boogie-woogie was hot then, and it was the first style I was exposed to.  Mr. Pit played with the best of them.“56 Moreover, in an interview with Clint Eastwood in the “Blues Piano"32 documentary in the “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues” series, Charles also gives credit to Boogie Woogie as the style in which he first got his start.  Thus, screenplay writers for the movie, “Ray,“33 were either ignorant, and/or wanted to promote the word “stride.”  Sadly, the only time the term “Boogie Woogie” occurs in the film, “Ray,” is when it is uttered in a derogatory fashion by a racist white member of a country band when he indicates to the Ray Charles character that the country band does not play any “Boogie Woogie.”  Thus, the movie adds to the confusion of what is meant by “Boogie Woogie.”  Still, “Ray” is an excellent film that beautifully depicts the discovery by young Ray of, Mr. Wylie Pitman (A.K.A. “Mr. Pit”), the Boogie Woogie player who kindly gave Ray his first piano lessons.33

Swing - Many Boogie Woogies have a swing (A.K.A. shuffled) feel to them, yet “Swing” also often refers to a sort of high-brow, urbanized, orchestrated, ensemble music that often lacks the ferocity of raw Boogie Woogie.

Jazz - Jazz is the most non-specific of all terms used to refer to Boogie Woogie.  (See section bellow titled, “Is Boogie Woogie Jazz?”)  For the four reasons listed below, Boogie Woogie is Jazz, but so are a lot of other styles of music!  Thus, calling Boogie Woogie “Jazz” is true, but not very specific.

Rock and Roll Piano - Think Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard!  What they played was essentially Boogie Woogie with the addition of vocals, guitars, and drums.

Rockabilly - Sometimes used to describe the use of a Boogie Woogie beats, pulses, bass lines (often adapted to guitar) in country music that emerged in the 1940s and that (in addition to the direct influence of piano-based Boogie Woogie) influenced such artists as Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, both of whom consider their own music to be a form of Boogie Woogie.

Hillbilly—Sometimes used interchangeably with “Rockabilly”  Moon Mullican (AKA “King of the Hillbilly Pianists” is an example of a white performer who played Boogie Woogie, influenced Jerry Lee Lewis, and brought Boogie Woogie to the Nashville country music scene.

8-to-the-Bar - Refers to the number of pulses per measure, although not all Boogie Woogie is 8-to-the-bar.  8-to-the-bar is in contrast to Ragtime’s 2-to-the-bar (AKA oom-pah).

Sixteen - term used by Eubie Blake to refer to 16 notes in the left hand for every 4 in the right.  However, Blake’s account of the use of this term might have been concocted.  (See section below on Eubie Blake.)

Fast Western—as described by E. Simms Campbell in 1939.  (According to Lee Ree Sullivan of Texarkana, both “Fast Western” and “Fast Texas” derived from the “Texas Western Railroad,” a precursor to what later became the Texas & Pacific Railroad.68 “Pete Johnson who grew up in Kansas City said they called it ‘western rolling blues.‘“74

Fast Texas—usually used interchangeably with “Fast Western.”  See “Fast Western” above.

Fast Blues—as described by E. Simms Campbell in 1939, as contrasted with the “Slow Blues” of New Orleans1

Galveston Blues - In 1966, Victoria Spivey indicates that what had been called “The Galveston Blues” was “now called the ‘Boogie Woogie.‘“45

© 2004-2008 John Tennison — All Rights Reserved

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